Beginning in the early 1970s, when Buster Simpson camped out in buildings about to be demolished in downtown Seattle and made art out of the readily available materials in his rapidly changing ecological and economic environment, he created installations following his principle of "poetic utility" in cities around the world. A pioneer of urban eco art, he typically worked directly in the landscape rather than in museums and galleries. He has more than 40 permanently sited commissions to his credit in cities across the U.S. and Canada, and projects continually underway. Although his work is often quiet and sometimes overlooked, it has shaped Seattle to the extent that one writer described northern downtown as "Simpson City" (Mudede, 17). In 2013, he was selected by the City of Seattle to create a permanent installation driven by habitat restoration and open public space at the new Elliott Bay Seawall, a central part of the redesign of Seattle's Central Waterfront. He had another career highlight in 2013, when the Frye Art Museum worked with Simpson to organize his first comprehensive survey -- based on his motto that "No new materials" be generated in its presentation (Lawrimore, "Sky's the Limit," 21). Rebellious to the core, the Michigan native who began his art career almost by accident in the pandemonium at Woodstock in 1969 has worked to be more socially engaged than a traditional studio artist, inserting himself instead as an agent in the larger cultural project of tending to damaged and compromised environments.From Country Kid to Experimental Artist
Simpson has intervened mostly in urban settings, but he grew up dead-intimate with rural land, water, and trees. His environmentalism predates Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's movement-popularizing 1962 best-seller, published when he was 20; it resonated deeply with him when he read it.
Simpson was born Lewis Cole Simpson in Saginaw in 1942. His mother was a schoolteacher, his father a storekeeper, and they lived in a farming community along Michigan's Cass River. Every spring, the river flooded. Water would rise up into the basement and flood the coal stove. It was Simpson's job to fill the stove mornings and evenings. The family lived downriver from a slaughterhouse, so sometimes the river would run red. He still remembers hours spent alone in the trailless woods on both sides of the river. He didn't consider it idyllic or romantic, just pragmatic.
At school he remembers being a slow reader and probably an undiagnosed dyslexic. He had no plans to go to college. Instead, he set his mind to joining the military, but a visit with an unfriendly recruiter rubbed him the wrong way. He got a job at a sign painting company to put himself through school, spending his first three years commuting to the junior college in Flint. Among the variety of subjects he studied, only the art department saw him as special and encouraged him, he said. Teachers suggested he transfer to the University of Michigan to study art.
Once in Ann Arbor, he discovered the 1960s art world. The main conduit for experimental art at the University of Michigan in those days was the ONCE Group, a collection of artists, musicians, filmmakers, and architects who put on a festival of new music every year, imported the hottest visual artists (mostly from New York, then in thrall to pop and conceptual art), and shared ideas and methods to collaborate on their own productions. Simpson once recalled:
"Members [of ONCE] put on collaborative performances that were complex, visually stimulating, and intelligent, while maintaining a good Midwest sense of grounding. I appreciated that they did that on their own -- without institutional backing -- just because they recognized that this needed to be done. ... In the ONCE Group performances, I saw risk taking, playing with chance, learning as you go -- modes of operation that I recognize as still being part of my art practice today" ("Rearview Mirror," 90).
Sculptor/printmaker Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008), Judson Dance Theater, and a series of performances that became the legendary late-1960s Experiments in Art and Technology were on the lips of U of M art students when Simpson was there. About Rauschenberg, Simpson said, "His iconography was real-time. He was taking imagery from current events, pulled straight off the press or from TV. That appealed to us because it was in step with the politics of the time -- particularly in Ann Arbor, where issues were at the forefront and art and politics were mixed" ("Rearview Mirror," 89).
Simpson graduated with his master in fine arts from the University of Michigan in 1969. Forty-four years later, in March 2013, Simpson was an inaugural artist-in-residence during the first year of the Rauschenberg Foundation's Rauschenberg Residency, hosting artists at Captiva Island, Florida, where the late artist once lived. The foundation's mission is "to support programs and grants which align to the artist's statement that 'Art can change the world'" (Rauschenberg Foundation).
"You got me so psyched on printmaking that I went out and hired a bunch of convicts at the Walla Walla Penitentiary to 'letter press' in aluminum for this library parking garage," Simpson wrote in a letter to the Rauschenberg Foundation, which posted the note on its website (Rauschenberg Foundation). Simpson was referencing Vernacular, a permanent installation completed in the summer of 2013 at the Bellevue Public Library in Bellevue, Washington. It is a curtain/frieze mounted between the parking garage and the library entrance composed of 1,489 brightly colored vanity license plates stamped by prisoners with slang ("JUST4FUN," "SPLORIN"). It measures 72 feet wide and 17 feet high.Getting Started
After art school, Simpson wandered. He drove -- alternately his motorcycle and his van -- across the country, back and forth between East and West Coasts. Out of the back of the van, he sometimes sold his little sculptures for cheap. The van was robbed once, but the pieces were found by one of Simpson's friends later. Simpson said:
Simpson's other "first" installation was to become legend. In 1969, an old friend of his from the University of Michigan was involved in organizing a large music festival. It turned out to be Woodstock, and this friend needed a co-director for the art segment of the program. It would be called Woodstock Music & Art Fair.
"The thing that I probably was making the most of was bronze belt buckles. It was kind of wampum. They were 20 dollars apiece and they were all lost-plastic [technique]. I would do a mass production using lots of plastic Americana, and would jam them up with the juxtaposition of just all the plastic stuff that was out there, you know, plastic toys that were then transformed into bronze and made into bronze belt buckles. A friend of mine, Al Loving, who was a pretty well-known painter, he was a good friend of mine and I used to stay in his place on the Bowery a lot. He was the one that actually found some of these pieces and some other pieces I had done at Joe's Buy and Sell at the corner of Bowery and Houston, which is where Whole Foods is now. So I often credit that as my first one-man show in New York" (Graves interview, September 15, 2013).
About 10 artists worked together to plan the events, with Simpson and one other artist leading the team. Their first proposal was pure Simpson: wrapping dead Dutch elm trees in the area with Mylar "space blankets," the kind designed to wrap people to hold in warmth. Simpson would continue throughout his career to use technologically advanced materials, rather than materials signaling nostalgia, to serve his vision of ecological remediation.
But organizers wanted something "that smelled like patchouli oil, that was back to nature," and nostalgic, Simpson said (Graves interview, June 15, 2013). When the site of the festival had to be changed, and the new venue would be Max Yasgur's dairy farm in Bethel, New York, Simpson and his fellow artists decided to design and build a mini-farm in his fields, where urban music fans could engage more directly with the agrarian. They ended up building a playpen for people, including a labyrinth and a jungle gym made of logs, along with 200 chicks under heat lamps in an enclosure.When the festival got overcrowded and began to descend into muddy chaos, the art was forcibly overcome. Simpson said, "For ten young artists fresh out of college, seeing the pillaging of our precious art was horrifying. It felt really personal, because we had put so much effort into making these objects, but it was also a great wake-up call" ("Rearview Mirror," 91).
The artists dismantled the art, distributed its components for firewood and sleeping mats, got the animals to safety, and Simpson went straight to the front of the stage to provide sorely needed security. Simpson described the scene:
"The last line of defense was the 8-foot-high chain-link fence around the perimeter of the place ... There were a lot of people trying to climb up and over the fence and everybody that was inside, we tried to convince them that this was not a smart thing to do. ...We just had to, like, plead. [The area between the fence and the stage] was also the urinal, so you either had people trying to climb over or people taking a piss, and sometimes at the same time. It wasn't beautiful" (Graves interview, September 15, 2013).
After the crowds finally left, Simpson applied the wisdom of his early life. He helped clean up the farm, including literally mending farmers' fences that had been trampled by the festivalgoers.To Pilchuck and Seattle
Soon after that, Simpson was in Rhode Island giving an artist talk at the Rhode Island School of Design when glass artist Dale Chihuly (already at RISD) walked in. Impressed with Simpson, Chihuly convinced him to come to Washington to help found an interdisciplinary school modeled after the modernist Black Mountain College in rural North Carolina -- haunted by artists and poets including Rauschenberg for more than a decade until it closed in 1956.
In 1971, Chihuly, Simpson, and others opened their "campus" in rural Stanwood, Snohomish County, consisting of wood cabins and classrooms they built themselves. (Simpson contributed a sturdy tree house, with windows, still standing in 2013.) It eventually became Pilchuck Glass School, the world-renowned mecca for artists working in glass. But at the start, it was a broader experiment in living off the grid while making art. Simpson was head of media, meaning video and sound. He created his own experimental works there, too, including dragging a microphone across the fields to capture the sounds and sights of wandering the landscape. In 1972, disappointed in the school's development, Simpson left. He recalled:
"As time went on, though, Pilchuck moved away from the back-to-nature spirit and became, in a sense, more urban. Infrastructure was built up, and there was more focus on providing amenities rather than leaving participants to provide their own shelter and feed themselves. As the school had more to offer, there was less time to devote to survival. I wonder if, at this point, Pilchuck should have become a weaving school as [late philanthropist and Pilchuck co-founder] Anne Gould Hauberg had suggested. Considering the pasture and natural dye sources, it would have made holistic sense for Pilchuck to become a weaving school and for the glass shop, with its roots in industry, to move back to the city" ("Rearview Mirror, 92).
That's what Simpson did -- moved to the grimy heart of depressed downtown Seattle. Small buildings still stood in enviable water-view locations, but already they were slated to be torn down to make way for the big towers that transformed Seattle in the late twentieth century.
The seeds of the ideas that would occupy Simpson throughout his career were planted in his early experiences. Simpson said:
"Rather than deserting the city to go back to nature, I became interested in bringing the ethos of nature into the city and finding some discussion between the systems we see in nature and the systems of the city" ("Rearview Mirror," 91).
Writer Charles Mudede described Simpson's work:
Woodman in the Heart of the City
"Though hippies were correct to advocate practices and behaviors that promote the health of the environment, to see nature as authentic and the urban as inauthentic resulted in an imaginary that did not in substance break with the old order or coding of things, the order/coding that had a clear inside and outside, the order/coding that precisely led to ecological catastrophes like smog, polluted rivers, and acid rain. Amazingly, Simpson saw what was simply invisible to so many in the then-emerging environmentalist movement: the city is a part of nature" (Mudede, 16).
Clair Colquitt, an artist/inventor and friend of Simpson's from the University of Michigan, was the one who first suggested Simpson check out Seattle. At first, Simpson moved into an old warehouse above the Polly Friedlander Gallery at 89 Yesler Way, with fellow artist Chris Jonic. It was December 1973, and the two agreed to take a "live-in job" cleaning the warehouse, a project that Friedlander invited the artists to make into an art exhibition. Simpson later recalled:
"We were trying to balance doing the work to clean it up -- shoveling bird droppings and clearing away building detritus -- with putting on an exhibition by orchestrating the objects we found there. She had discarded a lot of things up there, including easels for viewing prints and stacks of paper. Above one of the stacks of paper, there was a leak in the ceiling. The paper had apparently been sitting there quite some time, because this minute drip had slowly worn its way through the paper to create the holes you mentioned. This whole project was about looking at how time had transformed the objects in the space and seeing the value in what time had created. It was archaeology, in a sense" ("Rearview Mirror," 93).
The warehouse experience, titled Selective Disposal Project, would be a model for his artmaking in years to come. Two soon-to-come projects were episodic performances by an alter ego named Woodman, a romantic figure demonstrating a commitment to environmental cleanup despite its apparent futility, and Simpson's proposal for an artistic intervention at Myrtle Edwards Park in 1974.
Woodman was inspired by the sight of beautiful discarded lumber from a demolished building in north downtown Seattle, Simpson said. He videotaped himself as Woodman, patiently collecting the wood in his arms even when it kept falling out; he could not possibly pick it all up himself. Like a graffiti artist, Simpson began to leave out in visible locations in the neighborhood life-size silhouette cutouts of Woodman, hunched over with the weight of the wood he was picking up (as well as cutouts of other figures, including a crow), to prompt collective awareness and, he hoped, action. Sometimes, he would place silhouettes of human figures inside buildings so that they were visible in the windows from outside, then videotape the buildings on demolition day, capturing "the image of somebody standing while old Seattle fell" (Graves, "The Outside Artist").
His proposal for Myrtle Edwards Park was another attempt to bring awareness to the aftermath of environmental destruction and change, rather than to cover over it with artistic beautification. Detritus from the construction of Interstate 5 had been dumped at Myrtle Edwards Park, and city planners called for proposals for an artist to intervene, with the implicit goal of cleaning up the area. Simpson proposed leaving the rubble in place, but arranging it, "reorchestrating" it (Buster Simpson // Surveyor, 41). He called the idea Learning Lessons. It was rejected. Michael Heizer's Adjacent, Against, Upon was chosen instead.
From 1974 to 1987, Simpson lived in short-term arrangements with landlords and developers in northern downtown, where he "moved from doomed location to doomed location ... using the conditions of real estate as the basis for his work" (Graves, "The Outside Artist").
His first berth was in a brick building on Post Alley between Stewart and Virginia streets -- this building would not be torn down, it was just partly empty at the time -- where the upper floors had been a fixed-income housing project dating back to 1901. Across the alley, a new condo tower was completed. In 1978, to mark its completion, Simpson created Shared Solar Clothesline. It was an installation consisting of laundry lines slung between the two economically disparate buildings. According to Simpson, he got permission from residents on both sides, but a resident from the fixed-income housing project later objected on the grounds that the laundry reminded him of the messier streets from the home country he had left to come to the United States. He asked it be taken down (Graves interview, June 10, 2013). In the summer of 2013, Simpson re-mounted the installation between the same two buildings where the same conditions persisted, using laundry (all whites) found at thrift shops and discarded at laundromats.
In 1983, Simpson was living and working in the abandoned Pine Tavern, also near Pike Place Market. The building would be torn down to make way for commercial development. But in the in-between time, Simpson created 90 Pine Show, a full-scale installation inside. Its central element was a kinetic sculpture called Counterparts. For Counterparts, three silhouettes of Woodman were installed on the roof and acted as weathervanes. When the wind blew them, they rotated a rigged apparatus of three more silhouettes inside the tavern, knocking discarded liquor bottles to the floor. The bottles had been discarded originally from the Copacabana Café, a Bolivian restaurant nearby, and then, once smashed in the art installation, the scrap glass was trucked to a recycling center, the money given to the community health clinic a block away near Pine Tavern. Simpson recalled the total funds raised were $79 for a year of work. Said Simpson, "What we did back then, any good businessman would tell you it was not effective. But we got the news media down" (Graves interview, September 15, 2013).
For other projects in that area, Simpson followed the demolitions of small hotels and SROs. He gathered components he found, such as crutches and the headboards of beds, and used them to construct protective gates around individual trees on the streets. He called them Tree Guards.
He also tried to save local cherry trees by building nests and occupying them. Usually, he was unsuccessful, and would sometimes build the next nest out of the discarded branches of the last effort.
Frye Art Museum curator Scott Lawrimore wrote:
Art in Public: Performances and Prescriptions
"Seattle can be viewed as Buster's ongoing masterpiece. The largest concentration of his work is in the Belltown neighborhood -- the roughly fifty city blocks just north of the downtown core -- with the First Avenue Streetscape Project (1978-present), Urban Arboretum (1978-present), Tree Guards (1978-present), Growing Vine Street (1997-present), and dozens of other amenities such as benches, historical placards, and downspouts, quiet and loud art moments and highly visible public commissions all installed there. Urban Arboretum is perhaps his greatest and most lasting legacy. Buster and fellow collaborators played a crucial role in instigating and overseeing a plan for planting nearly every tree over ten blocks on First Avenue, dictating the placement and selecting the species based on the community's needs -- plum to designate the bus stops, ginkgo for shade, cedar for local history, and so on -- choreographing a rich and useful experience of nature in an urban core. With more than thirty varieties of trees that total well over one hundred in number, this is an urban work of Land Art so impressive in scope, execution, and beauty that it is easy to overlook. When art devotees are planning future pilgrimages to the major works of Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and others, they should always consider Seattle, Buster's city, a vital stop on their itinerary" (Lawrimore, "Sky's the Limit," 25).
Simpson was a member, in the 1970s, of the first integrated design team of artists hired by the City of Seattle to create art funded by and located on the site of a city construction project. Simpson, Sherry Markovitz, and Andrew Keating oversaw the art for the Viewland/Hoffman Receiving Substation, a fenced-in area along Seattle's electrical grid where transformers change and transmit voltage. This became a pilot for the 1 Percent for Art program that would be a prototype for cities to funnel construction funds toward commissioning art.
At his 2013 exhibition at the Frye Art Museum, Simpson represented the Viewland/Hoffman project by showing videos of bureaucratic meetings from that time. In the videos, not much happens. Artists just sit around a table with bureaucrats. Simpson recalled:
"Once, during this process, we had nine City Light lawyers at a meeting with us to discuss the whirligigs by folk artist Emil Gehrke that we had proposed installing on the site. They were debating whether placing the whirligigs in a self-contained, fenced-off area constituted risk management. So you can see how a lot of energy was put into conversation and negotiation around something that today looks benign -- a bunch of whirligigs at a substation" ("Rearview Mirror," 94-95).
Despite the onerousness of the process, Simpson continued to practice in public. He prefers the term "artist in public" to "public art." Starting in the 1980s, he conducted a multi-limbed practice. He created commissions for government agencies and proposed official art plans for construction projects and whole cities. Some of these were accepted and implemented, and some went into his files. Scale models populate his Leschi home, a onetime neighborhood grocery store that he converted into a studio and home for his family, including his wife, the artist Laura Sindell (b. 1947), and their daughter Hillela Simpson (b. 1988). He describes as his "one that got away" a monumental foot he proposed for the base of the Embarcadero hill in San Francisco in 1999 (Graves interview, June 18, 2013). It was accepted by the San Francisco Arts Commission but later killed by the City Supervisors.
Simpson has also continued to conduct guerrilla actions. The temporary actions did not leave long-term physical marks (like, say, spraypaint does), and Simpson recycled materials already found in the (usually urban) landscapes.
For the Frye Art Museum exhibition, scheduled from June 15 to October 13, 2013, he expanded on a smaller third strain in his practice, of creating objects suitable for gallery display. They continue to utilize humble materials usually used for other, utilitarian, purposes.
All parts of Simpson's practice are inflected with humor. He once said, "I think of my work as political, yeah, but it's like in the '60s, we said, 'If there's no dancing in your revolution, we don't want any part of it. There were a lot of dogmatic communists running around in those days, and they didn't have parties or know how to dance. I love to dance. Shit, I mean there has to be joy in this" (Graves, "The Outside Artist").
He's also referred to his work as medicinal. Curator Lawrimore described it as of the "slow-drip" variety, quoting Simpson as saying, "The revolution is incremental" ("Sky's the Limit," 23).
Projecting Limestone Purge (1983), Antacid Purge (1983-present), When the Tide Is Out the Table Is Set (1983-present), and Composting Commode (1987) are all performances that employ wit in "treating" a problem. For Projecting Limestone Purge, Simpson stripped naked and flung chunks of limestone each blasted with the word "PURGE" at the Goliath of the World Trade Center. (He was too far away for anything to hit.) In Antacid Purge, he has hurled disks of limestone, with its acid-neutralizing properties, into waterways including the Hudson, Tolt, and Nisqually rivers; the disks remain there, working slowly and minutely against acid rain. For When the Tide Is Out the Table Is Set, Simpson dropped low-fired ceramic plates into polluted waters including Puget Sound and the Duwamish River. After dredging up the plates, they were high-fired, and the gunk they'd accrued became their surface decoration.
For Composting Commode, Simpson dug unsanctioned holes in the planting strips along First Avenue, camouflaged them by setting Porta Potty cases over them, and offered them as public accommodations for homeless people already relieving themselves there. Once the holes were full, Simpson planned to add soil to make compost, then plant trees in the holes. He recalled:
"But somebody called in [to the King County Health Department] and said that these weren't Sani-cans, that people were shitting into the ground. But I had a relationship with these [county officials] already, [artist] Jack Mackie and I did after planting all those trees [in Urban Arboretum]. I said, 'Okay, I'll remove this, but we need to have some kind of an effort toward a discussion about how we can correct the issue of indiscriminate defecation and common decency for the homeless. A couple of friends who were in the architecture school talked the dean into supporting a charette -- a gathering bringing students down for a week looking at the problem of homeless amenities, so it was broader than just toilets. ... I was disappointed because none of them came up with a really simple solution that didn't require being connected to plumbing, and I knew that would be really expensive. Then later we got those big toilets that were wheelchair accessible. Now I say when I talk about this that Bill Gates -- as soon as he gets it worked out, I think we'll have the answer. He's doing toilets for the Third World, and in some ways, we're Third World" (Graves interview, September 15, 2013).
Despite the continual setbacks and naturally slow progress of structural change, making art in public allowed Simpson to be "collaborative," "complex, visually stimulating, and intelligent, while maintaining a good Midwest sense of grounding" -- those properties he said he'd first admired in the ONCE Group at the University of Michigan ("Rearview Mirror," 90).
"The whole public art movement, it's been our movement and it's been our patronage," he said. "It's made us more responsive to communicating. We [artists working on public projects] have to communicate on a lower discourse, or maybe not lower, it's a populist discourse. When you talk to a developer, they can just shut you out, even though there's public money. So we've had to develop our wit in another way" (Graves interview, June 18, 2013).For the Joy of Natural Cycles
Throughout his career, Simpson has made artistic decisions that are designed to reveal -- rather than cover over through prettification -- histories of places and the systems that exist under their surfaces. Growing Vine Street, the project begun in 1997, involves a series of downspouts installed high on the facades of buildings for eight blocks where Vine Street leads steeply down toward Elliott Bay. The downspouts are un-dressed-up black PVC and corrugated metal pipes arranged in shapes like grids of switching-back intestines. They send runoff water into cisterns and runnels, some of which are brightly colored and oddly shaped to draw attention as they function. Native plantings at ground level then filter the water as it streams down the hill.
Urban planner Greg Waddell wrote about the broader context of Growing Vine Street:
"Street and property runoff in Downtown Seattle (including Belltown) is currently channeled into combined sewer lines, carrying mixed storm water and raw sewage. These lines operate beyond their capacity during heavy rains, leading to overflows of untreated sewage into Puget Sound, Lake Union, and even buildings. This combining of sewage and storm water also necessitates the processing of relatively clean rainwater at a sewage treatment facility. Besides paying a tremendous on-going processing cost, citizens of Seattle have buried their urban watersheds in ever-larger pipes, losing critical wildlife habitat as well as the joy of witnessing the normal hydrological cycle" (Buster Simpson website).
Writer Mudede once described the goals of Growing Vine Street and other, similar pieces by Simpson:
"You do not, like the City Beautiful movement, build and impose the ideal city of the future on citizens; instead you prepare the citizens for the right city. Simpson's art projects are tools for the imaginary (consciousness) of a city we have yet to build" (Mudede, 19).
As of fall 2013, Simpson had not yet released specific plans for his art on the new Elliott Bay Seawall underway. The first phase of construction on the seawall was scheduled to be finished in 2015, the second phase extending into 2019. Simpson said his art will likely be installed in parts at various times over the years. Though his plans had not been released, Simpson said one portion might involve a wood structure resembling a logjam united by tetrapods.
Tetrapods are four-legged concrete blocks planted along coastlines to soften the blows of pounding waves. Simpson wrapped the legs of a giant tetrapod around tree root wads to create a sculpture called Secured Embrace in the reflecting pool of the Frye Art Museum in his 2013 exhibition. Typically, tetrapods are hidden when they're deployed, but if he uses them at the Elliott Bay Seawall, they will be in plain sight. Simpson said:
"Placement of root wads with concealed anchors has been a common strategy for creating 'natural'-looking habitats. My aesthetic criticism of such initiatives has always been that they are not honest about the fact that this is a man-made intervention to correct earlier man-made environmental damage. ... In 2011, I proposed installing iterations of Secured Embrace at the Army Corps of Engineers’ new headquarters on the floodplain of the Duwamish. The idea was that they would first be placed in formation on the grounds in front of the building and later be redeployed down to the water, where they would serve their purpose as habitats. However, this ran into problems because of the General Services Administration's criteria for art that is sited: Can the art be moved after it has been sited? Also, can it be made out of materials that will eventually rot?" ("Rearview Mirror," 98).
Simpson said officials involved in the seawall project have told him they visited his Frye exhibition and came away with a clearer understanding of what talked about in meetings. Just as he hoped works at the museum would make way for what could happen outdoors, he hoped his outdoors philosophy might leave a lasting impression on the way the museum worked (Graves interview, September 15, 2013). For his exhibition, the museum used recycled plywood and drywall to create plinths. No vinyl letters were printed for the wall labels; the text was handwritten on chunks of drywall salvaged from past exhibitions. Some of the sculptures were set on platforms created out of folded-down sections of the Frye's own walls, exposing beams behind the drywall and creating new views between galleries.
In earlier exhibitions, such as at the New Museum in New York in 1983, at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., in 1989, and the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington in 2000, institutions gave him space outside their buildings rather than inside them. The Frye adjusted to him rather than the other way around. Unlike most artists, Simpson has spent his career unrepresented by a dealer or a gallery.
Simpson has always had multiple projects in progress at once. There are the pieces he's trying to see come to fruition, and ones that by their nature will essentially never be finished, like a nurse log he placed in downtown Portland in 1991, called Host Analog. It continually sprouts new growth and new biological hybrids, joining the watershed forest where it came from with its latter-day urban home. A project especially close to Simpson's heart is Magna Carta Yew: He has proposed to plant a scion of a 3,000-year-old yew tree -- the same one under which the Magna Carta was signed, still standing as a living witness to the founding of constitutional law in Runnymede, England -- on the front lawn of the United States Supreme Court. Simpson won initial approval in 2004 from representatives in England and Washington, D.C., and the project was submitted to the Marshall of the Supreme Court in 2005. Simpson received repeated rejection letters from the Marshall, but is not giving up. "You don't even have to say that it's out there!" he said (Graves interview, September 13, 2013). He joked that his reason for sending his daughter to law school is that maybe someday she'll become the Supreme Court justice who'll see through her father's idea.